Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Yom Hashoah

The insane murder-suicide rampage by a student at Virginia Tech that resulted in the deaths of over 30 students and faculty dead cannot help but leave us saddened, horrified, outraged, and questioning the sanity of our society, and whether the future holds anything in store other than decay, both moral and physical. Every loss of life is tragic, we may even regret that the killer took his own life rather than face justice and perhaps find some measure of atonement, but there also were several individuals who stood out because they ended their lives as heroes, saving others. One of them was Liviu Librescu, who the Herald Tribune described as "an internationally respected aeronautics engineer and a lecturer at the school for 20 years." When the gunman tried to get into his classroom, Librescu told his students to get away, and they did by jumping out of the windows while Librescu blocked the doorway and shielded them with his body, taking the bullets and sacrificing his life so that they could flee to safety.

As a teacher myself, I feel a deep obligation to recognize Professor Librescu's caring and courage in laying down his life for his students. There is no greater devotion to education as a calling (no mere job or even career). His website at Virginia Tech indicates that he was a respected scholar in the discipline of engineering, and while there is much there that I cannot relate to due to the technical nature of his work, I have read his web page to honor and pay homage to this man by learning a little something about what his life was about. And I want to include his photograph here as a tribute to his memory.

But my sense of connection to this man I never met goes beyond our status as colleagues. Liviu Librescu was a landsman, which is a Yiddish term that refers to someone who comes from the same town (as it was used in the past and especially in Eastern Europe, for example everyone from Fiddler on the Roof's little town of Anatevka would view each other as a landsman, even after they were forced to leave and resettle elsewhere, or after immigrating to America), or more broadly (and more recently) to refer simply to a fellow Jew. But more than that, he was a Romanian Jew, and my mother was born in Romania as well; while her parents came from the Russia/Ukraine area, and she grew up in Poland, she spent most of World War II in Romania, and like Librescu, my mother was in Transnistria. Like my mother, and my father, Librescu was a Holocaust survivor. Like my parents, he also survived life under Communism. My parents managed to get out shortly after the end of the war, but other relatives of my father (who was born in Transylvania before World War I, when it was part of Hungary, and who always considered himself to be a Hungarian Jew) remained behind in Romania (the younger generations considering themselves Romanian rather than Hungarian) until my father was able to bring them over to the United States in the 1960s. Librescu was not able to get out of Romania until 1978, and only though the intervention of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He and his family emigrated to Israel, and while he remained an Israeli citizen, Librescu came to Virginia in 1985 for a sabbatical year, and liked it so much he decided to stay in the United States. Again, I feel a sense of connection, as another part of my father's family also emigrated to Israel. But this is all coincidental, and incidental.

Maybe it's just this sense of connection I have, but I think, I hope it goes beyond that and that everyone feels as I do that there is something especially poignant about the fact that it was a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor who had behaved so very heroically, who had given up the life that the Nazi's failed to take from him, who had defended his students with the spirit that that evil could not extinguish.

But it is all the more poignant that this ultimate sacrifice occurred on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a holiday established by the Israeli Parliament in 1951, and observed by Jewish congregations all over the world. My own Congregation Adas Emuno holds a joint service with a nearby Orthodox synagogue every year. Yom Hashoah always falls within two weeks following the conclusion of Passover (Passover being considered the most joyous time of year), and around the time of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. The significance of this day could not have been lost on Liviu Librescu as he rose up against the gunman to defend his students.

There is no simple way to sum up the meaning of the Holocaust. It is infuriating to recall that there are some who believe it never occurred, who want to believe that it is a fiction and propaganda, and there also are some who believe it is but one of many similar examples of brutality and mass murder, increasingly less unique as these incidents accumulate. On the other hand, there are some who see it as unique in history, the culmination of over two millennia of oppression and hatred directed against our people, the ultimate act of scapegoating, a collective crucifixion.

But holding aside the anti-Semitic content of the Holocaust (which is not to deny it by any means), it is the medium that also has a special meaning, the method employed being one that was systematic and highly rational in the effort to exterminate whole classes of people, Jews of course, and also Gypsies and other races deemed inferior, and also the disabled, especially those considered mentally defective. It was the cold blooded, methodical way in which the Nazis went about their mass murder, the planning that went into it, the bureaucracy involved--in contrast to simply acting out of rage and running amok. The Holocaust represents the Shadow cast by the Enlightenment, rationality in the service of depravity, science supporting insanity. Progress, technology, efficiency, which once promised to usher in an industrial utopia, instead turned the factory system and assembly line into the human slaughterhouse, the concentration camp, Auschwitz. Our belief-system was devastatingly delegitimized, and for the past six decades nothing new has arisen to take its place. We have nothing but ourselves, which we extend through our technologies simply for the sake of seeing how far we can go.

And when we go too far? Well, that's what happened at Virginia Tech. The National Rifle Association says guns don't kill people, people do. Ridiculous! It is the medium that is the message, it is the gun that increases the potential for interpersonal violence, and murder. It is industrialization that opens the door for the Holocaust. It is nuclear weapons that have made the world more dangerous than it has ever been.

And it is individuals like Liviu Librescu who give us hope for tikkun olam, the healing of the world.

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